Part of C+’s investigation into Oxford’s role in the fight against Ebola

Imagine that one day, on your walk to the library, you notice a child has fallen into a shallow pond and appears to be drowning. To wade in and save the child would be easy, but it will mean that your brand new pair of shoes will get muddy. Do you have any obligation to save the child?

Initial thoughts: depends on the shoes. But when the moral philosopher Peter Singer posed this dilemma to his students, they exclaimed that they would save the child, for of course the importance of saving a child far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy. It wouldn’t make any difference where the child was from, or whether or not others made an attempt to save her.

Passivity in this situation would be blatantly immoral, tantamount to murder. Singer raises the question: if I choose to spend money on a pair of shoes, a night out, or several cups of coffee without giving money to charity, am I effectively choosing these luxury items over the lives of others?

Put simply, yes. The analogy is crude but accurate. Since the first recorded death of a two year old on 28th December 2013, the current outbreak of Ebola has caused more than 9,353 fatalities in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I am not advocating that we give up all luxuries (Heaven knows I love my shoes and lattes) but the case for giving to charity, especially in the case of Ebola, is undeniable.

Of course there are problems with charity. It was disheartening to learn this week that one third of the money that Sierra Leone received from donations could not be accounted for, according to national auditors. There is a risk that aid can fall into the wrong hands, be it corrupt government officials or terrorist organisations. But even if only two thirds of the money given goes to the right place, that is better than no aid at all.

It is perfectly reasonable to want to know where your money is going, and if it is being used ethically and effectively. But we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water by concentrating on what goes wrong, rather than the great deal that goes right. The Ebola outbreak is a textbook example of when aid works. Thanks to the courage of health workers and volunteers in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and New Guinea, Ebola infection rates are falling as the disease is brought under control.

Thousands of children were able to return to school this week in Liberia, and a vaccine should be available for use in West Africa from next year. It is also worth, perhaps cynically, noting that many of the donors who gave money to fight Ebola were hardly disinterested parties. Fears of a more global epidemic might prompt some to self-interested action.

Ebola has been a problem in West Africa since the first outbreak in 1976, but it was only when the disease risked becoming an epidemic that would cross continents that the international community started to take serious action. We are a global community, and in an increasingly interconnected world, a problem for one country becomes a problem for all. Helping to contain the infection abroad helps to protect the UK. The same self-interested reasoning applies to many long term aid projects. Projects that promote education for those who would otherwise go without are hardly ever ineffective, as education stimulates long term economic growth, creating wealth for both donor and receiver.

Ultimately, the issue of whether or not it is Britain’s moral duty to help affected countries comes down to the question of whether you think that someone else’s suffering is as important as your own. We are often told that charity begins at home. But too often it ends there as well.

Other articles in this investigation: